November 30, 2009

Holiday Books - Belated!

I have been very slack in sharing with you the books I picked up while we were travelling in September. So, not including Her Fearful Symmetry and Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day which I have already blogged about, from the bottom of the pile to the top these are the books I bought while away:
The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte - Syrie James, I really enjoyed her first book - The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen so I thought I would give this one a go (I have to admit that I have started it already but just couldn't get into it at this stage unfortunately).
Good Evening Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes - my other Persephone selection - I could have come home with so many more of these!
The Brontes Went To Woolworths - Rachel Ferguson, I just love this title and I have heard so many of you say great things about this one.
Dubliners - James Joyce, I have not read any of Joyce before but I heard a lot about him when we were in Ireland so I really wanted to give one of his books a go.
Chic Shopping Paris - Rebecca Perry Magniant, Just too cute to leave on the shelf really!

November 28, 2009

The Brightest Star in the Sky - Marian Keyes

I am a huge Marian Keyes fan from way back but I was so disappointed by her last book, This Charming Man, that I didn't automatically rush out to buy her latest release, The Brightest Star in the Sky when it hit the shelves in Australia recently. However, after reading Dot's review I thought I would give Marian one more chance - and I am glad that I did.

I felt that with this book Keyes has returned to the style that made me enjoy her earlier books so much - a collection of interesting and flawed characters all interconnecting in some way to create a story. I must admit that there is a certain degree of "sameness" about a lot of her characters - a sense of having read about this character before - but I guess people in the real world are a bit like this too - we all share a lot of similar traits and characteristics in a way.

The Brightest Star in the Sky centres around the block of flats, and the people that live there, at 66 Star Street, Dublin. The reader enters the characters lives through an anonymous narrator who has the power to hover over each person seeing into their thoughts and memories. It is through this technique that we are able to see things that the characters might not know about themselves or things that they aren't letting other people know about. It is a clever technique that could have come across as way too cute or unrealistic but I think Keyes has made it work in this book - you are kept guessing until right at the end about who this elusive narrator may actually be - my first guess ended up being very wrong!

As with most of Keyes's books there is a mixture of lighthearted comedy and funny moments mixed in with far more serious issues. I felt that the serious issues in this book (one in particular) were probably brushed over a little too quickly - I can imagine that it would be a struggle to include issues like these in a book like this - you want to obviously get some sort of message across while at the same time making the book readable and enjoyable - a tough ask.

Overall my faith in Keyes has been restored - while not without it's flaws I was kept entertained right until the end of this one - and I will be buying her next book as soon as it comes out.

November 25, 2009

Almost French - Sarah Turnbull

Continuing my new obsession with all things Paris I recently finished re-reading Almost French by Sarah Turnbull. In a nutshell the book is the memoir of an Australian journalist who meets a French man while travelling in Europe and ends up moving to Paris to live with him and continue their relationship together.

I had read the book when it first came out a few years ago and I remember enjoying it then even though I had never been to Paris (or even overseas at all) at that time. I have always loved to read stories by people who have picked up their whole life and moved to another country for adventures - it is a not so secret dream of mine to do the same one day and has been since I was young. My friends had photos of pop stars and actors on their walls and I had photos of my far away dream destinations such as New York and Rome.

So, Almost French was a book I was always going to be drawn to - although I think I enjoyed reading it even more the second time after having now been to Paris (however briefly!) myself.

The author is taking a year off from her job with a television station in Australia to travel around Europe and think about where she would like to head next in her career - and life in general. Then she meets Frederic and her plans are pretty much decided for her - the initial spark they feel for each other turns into something more and Sarah moves to Paris to live with him and start a life there. The unique "Aussieness" of the author is a positive in this book for me - I felt I could connect with her stories about home and how different Paris was to her hometown of Sydney in so many ways - and how that impacted on her transition to living and working in the French capital - but also about how she was able to fall in love with her new home:

I used to marvel at Sydney Harbour too, whenever I saw it. Sparkling blue carves the city with coves and inlets; it's a wonder of nature. But somehow in Paris the feeling of being awe-struck is even stronger. Perhaps because it is still relatively new to me or perhaps because it somehow seems preposterous that such beauty could be created by people. The city is a testament to civilisation. Of course, I know from the last year that living in a gorgeous environment isn't enough to make you happy. But breathtaking beauty of any kind is moving. It makes tourists of us all. It anchors your heart to a place. Just like Sydney Harbour, the wonderful sights of Paris inspire emotion, yes, even love.

Sarah talks about the different aspects of her life that she now has to re-learn in the French way, working, dinner parties, pets, fashion and families and relationships to name a few. I really enjoyed this book as an insight into one Australian woman's experience of Paris and the life she created there.

November 24, 2009

The End of the Chunkster Challenge - 2009

I had committed to reading three books for The Chunkster Challenge 2009 but I officially only managed to read two (I say officially because I am sure amongst my other reads so far this year I have read others that probably fit into the "chunkster" category but I only read two of the three books I had listed for the challenge). The two books I did manage to finish were Drood and Wolf Hall - both books that I loved (thankfully!). The book I had listed that I didn't manage to get to before the challenge ended was A Suitable Boy - and I am quite disappointed about this as this was the book that prompted me to join the challenge in the first place as it is a book I have been meaning to read for so long now. I have wanted to have a clear space of reading time to devote to this book but my reading habits and style (particularly at the moment) don't tend to lend themselves to this kind of reading - I like to have many different books going at the same time rather than devote myself to one large book. I think I am just going to have to bite the bullet and start this one - maybe the new year will be the perfect time??

November 21, 2009

The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria was a DVD that I bought while we were in the UK and I was very excited to find it as it only just come out at the cinemas at the time we left Australia and I hadn't been able to get to see it before we left. I find with DVD's (unlike books!) I seem to wait ages after I have purchased them to actually sit down and watch them - so it was only last night that I finally broke open the packaging on this one.
The story of Queen Victoria is not one I am overly familiar with beyond the most well known facts but I have always been interested in the relationship she had with Prince Albert and the way she grieved his loss after his early death at the age of 42. I became more interested when we visited Muckross House in Killarney in Ireland on our recent trip - a beautiful house that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had spent a few nights in not long before his death.

The Young Victoria is a stunning visual movie - gorgeous locations, costumes and people! I felt that Emily Blunt played a vibrant, feisty Victoria and while some of her mannerisms may have come across as quite modern (similar to the response I had to Miss Austen Regrets) who is to say that that is not how she would have responded in certain situations - particularly in regards to her relationship with Albert.
The movie focuses on the period in Victoria's life just before she turns 18 and then afterwards when she becomes Queen. We see her relationship with Albert develop from one of suspicion (this is the man that her manipulative mother wants her to marry after all) to one of respect and love. The movie also covers aspects of the political and social setting at the time which I found gave a good context for the relationship between Victoria and Albert.
With my lack of historical knowledge of this particular person and time in history I am not sure if the movie is accurate in all that it portrays but I know that I enjoyed watching it very much.

I have now brought out a copy of a book I have had on my shelves for a while and am now inspired to read - Becoming Queen by Kate Williams.
Has anyone else read any other books about Queen Victoria (fiction or non-fiction) that they would recommend?

November 20, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger was possibly my most anticipated book release of 2009. I fell in love with The Time Traveler's Wife and the characters of Clare and Henry and I was so excited to see what the author of this book had come up with next.

I was in London on our trip in September when the book was released and I quickly picked up a copy (I must admit I was excited to be actually purchasing the book in London when so much of the story is set there). I finished the book quite soon after we had arrived home in early October but it has taken until now for me to write my review. A couple of reasons for this - firstly, I lent the book to my best friend as soon as I had finished it because I was eager to hear her views on it and I don't like to write a review unless my copy of the book is right beside me (is anyone else like this??) but secondly, I needed some time to digest my thoughts and feelings about this one before writing about it.

The book tells the story of two sets of twins, London based Elspeth and her sister Edie who lives in the USA with her 20 year old twin daughters, Julia and Valentina. As the book opens Elspeth is dying in a hospital bed with her long term partner, Robert close by:

Elspeth turned her face towards the door. She wanted to call out, Robert, but her throat was suddenly full. She felt as though her soul were attempting to climb out by way of her oesophagus. She tried to cough, to let it out, but she only gurgled. I'm drowning. Drowning in a bed...She felt intense pressure, and then she was floating; the pain was gone and she was looking down from the ceiling at her small wrecked body.

As a result of her death her twin nieces are sent a letter telling them that they have inherited her property and her apartment in London, right next to Highgate Cemetery, on the condition that they live in it for one year before they sell it. When the twins arrive in London they come to meet up with Elspeth's partner Robert and Martin, an agoraphobic, obsessive compulsive crossword puzzle designer who lives upstairs, both have an influence on and effect the lives of Julia and Valentina. As the young woman move into the apartment of their deceased aunt fractures start to appear in their normally closer than close relationship - one of the twins starts to imagine a life where she isn't tied to the other - and Elspeth herself plays a part in the lives of the twins.

I felt that the book started poetically and with great promise - the first chapter where Elspeth dies brought up so much emotion for me that I was almost in tears - but that is where the poetry virtually ended for me. I thought Robert was the most complex and in ways endearing character of the book but by the end I had lost all respect for him (as I think he would have for himself!). I did start out enjoying Elspeth as a character but I felt that the direction she was written into felt forced and unnatural - even for a ghost! Julia and Valentina were by far the most disappointing characters for me - they felt like cardboard cutouts for the entire story and while I felt I glimpsed moments where they had some character and depth this wasn't enough to sustain my interest - or my ability to care about what happened to them. The parts of the story where London and Highgate Cemetery were in focus were my absolute favourite scenes and I found myself reading faster just to get to these places in the book.

Two great reviews I have read about this book are from Jackie and Claire and some others that I have read have mentioned that you may need to suspend your beliefs in order to fully get on board with the content of this book but I didn't really have a problem with this at all. I am not sure if I believe in the actuality of ghosts but I do believe that an energy can remain after someone has died so for me this was not such a hard concept to grasp - I just don't feel that the connection between the characters was built up enough for me to believe in this particular "ghost" story.

November 16, 2009

Miss Austen Regrets

The BBC production of Miss Austen Regrets which showed last night in Australia was my third selection for the Everything Austen Challenge.

This movie focuses on the latter parts of Jane Austen's life - she is approaching the age of 40, is living with her elderly mother and adored sister, Cassandra and is in the process of finishing Emma and searching for a publisher for it when the movie begins. Jane's 20 year old niece, Fanny, is looking for the perfect husband and so enlists the support and assistance of "Aunt Jane" in her endeavours. As Jane and Fanny go over prospective husbands for the younger woman Jane reminisces on the past loves, flirtations and proposals of her own life and meets one or two possible suitors in the present time.

The script writer has said that she based her story on the surviving letters Jane sent to Cassandra and Fanny during this period and I thought she did a wonderful job of interpreting these letters into fiction.

The actress who played Jane, Olivia Williams (where have I seen her before??), was beautiful - she created an edgy, funny, moody and spirited Jane who I really enjoyed watching. I found a lot of her mannerisms and language to probably be a bit too modern for the moment she is meant to be living in but I still enjoyed watching.

The regrets of the title focus on Jane's thoughts about never having married - although I feel she may have had regrets about this at times (isn't it only human to have regrets about our choices in life at times?) I truly feel that her books and writing were her family and her passion and her true regret may only have really lay in having missed an opportunity to make her beloved family more comfortable which may have happened if she had chosen to marry. I thought the movie really captured the difficult situation Jane was forced into because of the time period in which she lived - her only "real" choice was to marry and become a wife and mother - a way of life that would have most probably ended her writing career which she so loved.

I spent a totally enjoyable hour and a half watching this show! Beautiful sets, costumes and photography added to the magic of the script for me. Do I think this is actually how things happened? No, but I enjoyed thinking it might have...

I now have 3 more selections left to read/watch in this challenge - do any of you have any selections that you think I should definitely add to my list?

November 15, 2009

Lovesong - Alex Miller

I am ashamed to say that I have not read any of Australian author Alex Miller's work before - I'm not sure why really. I have certainly heard of him and his work before now but they never seemed to jump out at me. When I saw Lovesong though it's beautiful cover did jump out at me.

Lovesong is the story of a story - or several stories. Melbourne based author, Ken, has just returned from an extended trip to Venice after the release of his most recent novel - a novel he has decided will be his last. He returns home to the house he shares with his adult daughter, Clare, wondering where his life will take him now. Ken then meets John, his wife Sabiha and their young daughter, Houria, who have opened a bakery near to his home. Ken starts up a tentative friendship with John who tells him about his story with Sabiha - how they met in Paris at Sabiha's aunt's Tunisian cafe, Chez Dom and how they built a life and a relationship together there. There is a lot of pain and tragedy to their story - I was completely absorbed in this - it felt real and honest and even though it had the potential to be quite melodramatic this didn't happen.

The structure of the novel sounds so simple but it is really quite complex as Ken retells John's story that has been told to him and we see John and Sabiha's relationship through both of their eyes and perspectives.

I will certainly be looking out for more of Alex Miller's work after reading this one - a beautiful story teller.

November 14, 2009

Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier is one of my favourite authors and yet I was so disappointed by her latest book before this one, Burning Bright, that I didn't automatically rush out to buy Remarkable Creatures when it was first released.

I did finally give in though as I was hearing much better reports about Remarkable Creatures and all the reviews seemed to indicate that Chevalier had returned with a great novel.

Remarkable Creatures focuses on the lives of two very different women living in Lyme Regis on the English coast in the early 1800's, Mary Anning, a young working class girl with the knack for finding fossils or "curies" along the beach and Elizabeth Philpot, a middle aged, upper middle class single women who has been forced to move to Lyme Regis with her sisters from London after the death of her parents and the marriage of their only brother. The two women are connected by their shared loved and interest of the fossils - although their reasons for this love are very different. The finding of curies brings much needed money to Mary's struggling family while Elizabeth seems more interested in the historical and geographical significance of the finds - as well as the way they cause her to re-think many of the basic teachings and beliefs of her life.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Mary and Elizabeth in alternating chapters and I think this is one of the main problems I had with the book. Mary and Elizabeth are meant to have an enduring friendship and connection but for me I was never able to fully believe in this relationship and the strength it was meant to contain. I'm not sure if this was because I had to keep changing focus from reading the story from each point of view - the women never seemed connected in the narrative and so I could not connect their relationship. Unfortunately I think this relationship is obviously one of the standing points of the novel and because I wasn't able to connect with and believe in it the novel didn't quite work for me - even though I did enjoy (as always) Chevalier's beautiful writing style.

November 13, 2009

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is actually Lewycka's first published book but it is the third one of hers I have read after loving her latest release We are all Made of Glue and enjoying (but not loving) her second book Two Caravans. Based on my latest read I am glad that I have read the books in reverse order of their publication because although I did enjoy Tractors it was possibly my least favourite of the three.

Tractors is told from the perspective of Nadezhda (Nadia) the youngest adult daughter of a family who emigrated to England after WW2. Nadia has a virtually non-existent relationship with her older sister, Vera, following an argument that arose from their mother's death a couple of years before. The two sisters are reunited in some way though after their elderly father announces he is going to marry a woman much younger than himself so that she can obtain a residency visa for the UK. Nadia and Vera join forces to try and stop the marriage from happening in the first place and when that is not successful they work on ending it as soon as possible. They have good reasons for wanting the marriage to be over - their father's new wife is quite abusive towards him and I found these scenes particularly difficult to read.

Along with this story we learn the history of the families move to England and how different people in the family have different memories, interpretations and experiences of that history.

The book definitely has Lewycka's characteristic trait of combining serious issues with humour - I just found it harder to go over to the humour side in this book.

November 09, 2009

The Charles Dickens Journey

Without really planning it 2009 has turned into a bit of a Charles Dickens year for me. I have to say that university English study had turned me off reading any more Dickens but as I grow older I find that I am wanting to revisit some of the novels that caused me so much grief when I had to read, interpret, deconstruct and then write endless essays on them!
Earlier this year I read Drood and even though it was a fictional interpretation of the last years of Dickens' life I still found that it intrigued me into wanting to find out more about this author and his numerous written works. Other fictional works relating to Dickens that I have read this year include Girl in a Blue Dress and Wanting -both of which I loved.
In our recent trip to London I continued my year of exploring Dickens. We saw a wonderful performance of Oliver at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane - I thought it was a great interpretation of the story - with fantastic humour thrown in courtesy of Omid Djalili who plays Fagin.
I rounded out our trip with a visit to the Charles Dickens House Museum - the only surviving London residence of Dickens and where he wrote some of his novels, including Oliver Twist.
So, when we got back home I was in the mood to actually pick up a Dickens novel and when I headed to Borders I found one of the beautiful new Penguin hardcover editions of Oliver Twist which has come home with me. I now just have to move past my mental block that says Dickens = study and I will be able to start reading it!

Do you have a favourite novel of Dickens? Do you have a favourite novel about him and his life?

November 08, 2009

Persephone Secret Santa

I am only newly introduced to the world of Persephone Books but I am already wishing I lived much closer to London so that I could visit the shop on a regular basis. So, when I saw the post over at Book Psmith about the Persephone Secret Santa I was keen to jump on board - even more so when I saw that people in all parts of the world can be involved!

You have until November 10th to join in so head on over to Book Psmith if you would like to put your name down for the Christmas fun.

November 07, 2009

True Pleasures - A Memoir of Women in Paris - Lucinda Holdforth

I started reading True Pleasures - A Memoir of Women in Paris before we left for our trip in September and have only just finished it now so my reading has been a little disjointed - but fortunately I think this is the sort of book that lends itself to the "dipping" style of reading.

The Australian author of the book has reached a crossroads in her life - feeling unsatisfied with her career and feeling like there must be "something more" she heads to Paris to spend 3 weeks researching and reflecting on the lives of influential women who have connected with and impacted on that city in some way:

Through this strange period of reading and working and contemplating their past and my future, the women of Paris - wild, noble, brave, bad, strong, foolish - came to represent important things to me: the grand scale that an individual can achieve; the beautiful arc that a finished life can describe; the radiant, limitless scope of female potentiality.

And I found that the individual stories of these women's lives did not exist in isolation, but connected across time and space, like threads in the grand narrative tapestry that is the story of Paris itself.

Holdforth divides the book into chapters with each focusing on a particular woman relevant to the story of Paris - and women whose stories are interconnected with that of Paris. Women such as Colette, Nancy Mitford, Edith Wharton, Coco Chanel, George Sand and Madame de Pompadour are all explored in greater or lesser detail as well as many others.

I must admit I was drawn to this book mainly because I was about to go to Paris for the first time and I was hungry to consume as much reading material as I could about this city before I arrived there - but I an actually glad that I finished this book after coming back from my trip - it somehow meant more to me being able to have images in my mind of some of the places the author describes.

I really enjoyed the way the author talks about her own history with Paris - as well as her history in Australia - for me this provided a great context for her story and why she was on this crusade to discover more about the women of Paris's history and what drove them. However, I am able to see that some of her narrative may be confusing and boring for non-Australian readers. As an Aussie girl I didn't have that problem though and I enjoyed reading Holdforth's comparisons of the two cultures:

In Australia we do girls very well: young, fresh, ignorant, sexy girls. Not that I was one of them. I was pale and bookish and wore black tights in winter and secondhand sixties' frocks in summer. In France they like women, grown-up women. Ellen once said to me that the French don't consider a women starts to become interesting until she is thirty-five years old.

And with my 35th Birthday approaching I am starting to realise why I connected with Paris so well...

I found the stories of the individual women interesting and the little snippets that Holdforth has put into her book have only made me want to go out and read more about each of them. I found the book a great combination of history and fact and personal reflection and thought:

If Paris is a feast, then I'm still hungry. I haven't yet had my fill: in fact, I doubt I will ever be sated. That's why I'll just have to keep coming back.

I couldn't agree more.

November 04, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife - Movie

The Time Traveler's Wife is being released at the movies in Australia tomorrow but I was really lucky to be able to see it on our recent trip while in Dublin (just one of the perks I love about travelling overseas - being able to see films months before they make it down under!).

I am a huge fan of the book by Audrey Niffenegger but it did take me two attempts to be able to read this book - I just couldn't get my mind past the concepts in order to focus on the relationships and the story itself. I did what I always did when I have trouble with books I am certain I should be liking - I give them to my best friend to read first - she always seems to be able to help me interpret books in new ways. Anyway, on my second attempt I couldn't put the book down and absolutely devoured it.

Jackie wrote a great reflection the film which I read before I went away - and it only made me want to see it more. Like Jackie I cried when reading the book - and more tears flowed during the movie. It actually takes a lot for me to cry at anything fictional so this is usually a sign (for me at least) that the emotional storyline is authentic and genuine. My partner came to see the movie with me and even though he had not read the book he said that he enjoyed the movie and could follow the concepts easily.

Seeing movies of my favourite books are often a hit and miss affair for me but I have to say that The Time Traveler's Wife was definitely a hit. There was certainly a lot about the movie that was missing (especially content wise) but I felt it captured the essence and feeling of the book perfectly. So much so that I think I will venture out this weekend to watch it all over again...

November 03, 2009

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson

It took me a while to pick up The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - I was really intrigued by all the wonderful reviews I was reading but the genre of crime/mystery is not usually one that I enter into - too close to my work and just not something that tends to relax me. Part of the buzz of reading for me is being taken to another world - and this type of world just isn't really the kind of world I want to visit!

However, I bit the bullet with this one when I was in Borders with my partner a couple of weeks ago and he had two books in the "Buy 3 Get one Free" deal but just couldn't find a third - Dragon Girl called out to me so I brought her home with me.

Am I glad that I did? Well, yes and no...

Yes because this was a really great book in so many ways. Not being a big crime/mystery reader I'm probably not really able to compare this book with others in its field but I thought this was one of the best character novels in this genre that I have read. The main characters seemed solid and well developed and not without their flaws - definitely multidimensional. The character of Lisbeth Salander was a particular favourite - so vulnerable but such a tough ass at the same time - I loved her!

I thought the mystery element of the novel was well built - the premise of disgraced finance journalist, Mikael Blomkvist being called upon by ageing Industrialist Henrik Vanger to solve a decades old family mystery was combined well with Blomkvist's own personal and professional dramas with a high rolling Swedish businessman. The interactions between the different story lines and characters was written quite well - I sometimes felt the narrative was a little stilted or strange but I am wondering if this was a result of the translation process??

This book captured my reading time from the moment I picked it up but unfortunately it also captured my non-reading time - particularly my sleep! I soon discovered that for me this was not a book I could read before going to sleep - the violence depicted in the novel - particularly personal violence against women - was brutal and graphic. I have worked with women who have had violence perpetrated against them and this book reminded me of many of their stories. To be honest, if I had known this was the context of the book I probably would not have read it - so in many ways I am glad I was in the dark about this content as this is a book I am glad to have read. I will also be looking forward to reading the other two books in the series - after I have a little bit of a break from the violence and mystery.